Rob Malara

ASU Midterm Report: Running Back


As the Sun Devils head into the middle of what Todd Graham refers to it as an “extra week” on his program’s schedule, we have broken down each and every position group on the football team giving a recap of performance with an GIF to match.

While the final chapter “has not been written” on the 2015 season according to Graham, the offense has struggled mightily through the first seven games of the season, lacking any consistency from week-to-week.  And by most accounts, the offense has been the main reason behind at least two of the team’s three losses.

Albert Einstein once stated, “out of clutter, find simplicity.”  In the case of the running back position at ASU, one that was thought to be a position of great depth and skill, it simply has come down to the misfortune of injuries and keeping players healthy that has caused this offense a great deal of harm.

When sophomore running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage have played together the Devils have won two of three games.  When they haven’t, the Devils won two games against inferior opponents and lost two against the likes of Texas A&M and Utah.  So keeping these two players healthy for the remainder of the season is imperative.

Demario Richard is on pace to finish just shy of his first 1,000-yard rushing season and has been fantastic at times.  He’s recorded 100-yard rushing games in four of the six games he’s been healthy for, and scored all four of his touchdowns this year in the red zone.  Richard is an ideal one-cut zone runner, a fantastic pass catcher, and he’s also the best pass blocker among the group.  It goes without saying he’s one of the best all-around running backs in the Pac-12.

Ballage on the other hand, while an above-average runner outside the tackles, has been inconsistent at fitting into the zone run scheme since returning against USC.  While he looks the part of a power back (think back to the touchdown against UCLA), his skill set doesn’t quite fit at times with what the offensive line is trying to do.  His running style is still a bit raw, but ten other offensive coordinators would take him in their backfield in a heartbeat, with the exception being Mike Leach.  But that’s a story for another day.

About those red zone opportunities for ASU: that’s another opportunity for improvement during the stretch run for this team as the offense has found it incredibly hard to score touchdowns when they have their opponents backed up.  In fact, their red zone touchdown percentage after seven games has been the lowest during Todd Graham’s stint in Tempe (53.3-percent, lowest among Pac-12 teams, and 97th in the country).

And then there have been the fumbles that ultimately cost Richard playing time against Colorado before getting injured later in the game.  The amount of times this offense has put the ball on the ground has been mind-blowing compared to the past three seasons under the supervision of offensive coordinator Mike Norvell.  In fact, the Devils lead the Pac-12 with 8 fumbles lost (two each for Bercovici and Richard), an astonishing stat when you consider they had lost 10 fumbles the past two seasons combined.  

Injuries and the fumbles have really helped to tie Norvell’s hand in the play calling department.  Since the 2012 season, ASU has consistently decreased its rushing attempts, peaking at 56-percent and down to where it sits currently at 45-percent.  That’s a troubling statistic if you buy into the heart of this offensive system being built on being able to establish the run to open up the play-action pass.  All of this coming to the forefront against Utah who held the Devils offensive unit scoreless last Saturday.

About Rob Malara

Rob Malara

Rob Malara is a 2002 Sun Devil grad having spent the majority of his time in Tempe as a football, basketball, and baseball season ticket holder and front row inhabitant. A member of the Football Writers Association of America, he hosted the ASU Devils podcast and was its sub-optimal technical producer through its lifespan. Currently the president of the ASU Alumni Association's Northern Colorado Club, he is part of a family of maroon and gold residing in Fort Collins with his Sun Devil wife and nearby Sun Devil sister.

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